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Grammys flashback: The trials and triumphs of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’

Paul Simon has been in the Grammy news cycle, partly because his newest album, “Seven Psalms,” is up for Best Folk Album, marking the singer’s first nomination in over 15 years. However, Simon has also been mentioned due to Taylor Swift’s “Midnights.” No, you’re not reading that wrong. Simon is one of only four artists to win the coveted Album of the Year Grammy three times; the others are Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and Swift. But Swift is looking to break that record this year, so many are revisiting those other three artists and their discographies, perhaps to determine whether Swift has really earned surpassing them in the record books. Simon himself has quite the trio of AOTY winners; they’re very different records both thematically and in terms of his own personal history. His last winner, “Graceland,” officially secured his place in Grammy history.

For Simon, “Graceland” was a labor of hope. The album came after some tumultuous years in the early ’80s, which included his divorce from Carrie Fisher and two consecutive commercial flops with “One Trick Pony” and “Heart and Bones.” This probably felt especially hard because, Simon himself admitted, he was pretty used to things going his way: “My feeling at the time was, well, I’ve made a failure,” said Simon. “I hadn’t had a big history of failure; I’d had a pretty good history of success.” So the story goes that Simon went to South Africa, inspired by a cassette tape of traditional African music gifted to him by an artist he was working with, to spur his creativity and find something fresh.

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“Graceland” was a success for Simon. The album’s combination of traditional South African sounds with Simon’s signature folk sensibilities made it a hit with critics and audiences alike, and it became his biggest album worldwide as a soloist. The record, however, was controversial. First and foremost was the political context. While Simon was out there jamming with South African musicians, the United Nations had called for a boycott of the country due to its apartheid system against Black South Africans. So Simon going there was not only risky, but actively consequential. He was blacklisted by the United Nations and condemned by others. Some, though, praised Simon, arguing that “Graceland” supported local Black South African talent.

Simon was also criticized for cultural appropriation; a white man journeying to Africa to reinvent himself, as artistic as it may be, does sound a bit problematic. Many argued that “Graceland” was perpetuating colonialist tendencies, borrowing from and profiting off of Black musicians. It also didn’t help that Simon was accused by Mexican-American band Los Lobos of not crediting them on the song “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.” Ultimately though, all these controversies didn’t stop “Graceland” from becoming a blockbuster.

It won Album of the Year, and it also produced a very interesting Grammy anomaly. The title track, “Graceland,” was nominated for Song of the Year in 1987, the same year the album was up for awards. However, the following year it was submitted for, and won, Record of the Year. Getting a ROTY nom wasn’t the weird part, as songs from Grammy-winning albums were allowed to be submitted in that category. However, for a song to be nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year in two different years, despite being the same recording, was highly unusual. That’s just one of the album’s many important records, milestones and accomplishments. It introduced African music to a lot of new American listeners, even though its success came with ethical concerns. Both things can be true at once.

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